How to Play the Blues by Rosanna Hendrix Flyleaf Literary Journal Literary Lunch

Rosanna Hendrix received a Master's in English from the College of Charleston, where she currently teaches freshman composition courses. She was a finalist in Glimmer Train's Very Short Fiction Competition during the summer of 2007.

HOW TO PLAY THE BLUES

by Rosanna Hendrix

June 3, 2016

 

When Frankie comes into the kitchen, ask if he wants to see your thong. He’s soaked in sweat. Pieces of grass stick to his sneakers. He pockets the cash your mother left for him on the kitchen counter, then scratches his head.

 

“Thong?” he asks.

 

Say, “It’s like underwear.” Unbutton your shorts.

 

He looks at you, proud. “I wear boxers,” he says.

 

“And I wear a thong. Want to see?”

 

Again, he scratches his head. He’s ten years older than you, though his body is lanky like he never grew into it. At the neighborhood pool, he used to throw you and the other kids up into the air and yell, “Water bomb!” He was skinny then too, in bright red swim trunks, body long and white with smears of sunscreen. His hands were gentle around your waist as he lifted you out of the pool, never roaming or lingering too long. He’s really the only guy you’ve ever felt comfortable around. Even your mother trusts him enough to allow him over when she’s not home. He mows lawns throughout the neighborhood each summer. This year he does the yard for your mother every other Friday.

 

“Okay,” he says, his voice softer now.

 

Listen for the sound of your grandmother snoring in the living room. Soft and steady over a rerun of Oprah. Check the clock on the kitchen wall, too, and make sure it’s not time for your mother to come home. Then do it.

 

Pull down your shorts.

 

He looks at you, eyes wide, curious. Turn around so he can see the sliver of purple between your cheeks. Say, “This is my first thong ever.” Say, “You like it?”

 

When he doesn’t respond, turn back around and face him. Feel excited, nervous, as he stares down at the thong where traces of pubic hair emerge from the edges. He looks like a child who just tasted ice cream for the first time.

 

“You like it, Frankie?”

 

He nods. “Yeah, yeah.”

 

Notice the bulge in his shorts.

 

Your mother says he’s a high-functioning autistic, but you don’t like that term, high-functioning. It sounds like something stale and unhuman. You didn’t plan to show him the thong – it’s something you only decided today, you just really needed to show someone – and it’s not like you have some kind of crush on him. It’s just you don’t know how to talk to boys your own age and you had your first period a couple months ago and more than anything, you want to know what it’s like to be desired. Because men aren’t something your mother discusses. Your father, a man named Hank Mitchell Waters, took off for Memphis with his band shortly before you were born.

 

To play the blues, your mother says.

 

You were around him a handful of times as a toddler, but his face is just a white blur in your mind. You’ve never even been to the state of Tennessee. All you remember is he smells like cigarettes and sweat, has long fingers, and he loves his music more than he loves your mother or you.

 

As Frankie stares, push away any embarrassment, any guilt. And for the love of God, don’t cover yourself. Let him see you.

 

He still looks at your crotch. “Thong,” he whispers.

 

“Don’t tell anyone. Not even your mom, okay?”

 

“Yeah, yeah.”

 

Let him look at you a while longer until Mumsy’s snoring stops. When he thanks you as he leaves – “Thanks, Janie” – try not to feel gross. Believe you’ve done a good thing.

 

Tell yourself you won’t do it again.

 

***

 

Your mother’s name is Abigail Grace Matthews.  She makes cheesy scrambled eggs every day for breakfast, but she never eats them herself because she hates eggs. She loves the smell of nail polish. She says the cost of living on Daniel Island is eating into her retirement fund, but she’s convinced it’s the best place in South Carolina to raise a child. It’s the kind of place where kids can roam around without supervision, the kind of place where doors are left unlocked. Mothers drive their kids to school on golf carts. The neighborhood pool is like something from a Disney World resort.

 

Mumsy has lived with you and your mother for the past three years. She’s demented, your mother says, but no way in hell will she end up in a nursing home. Your mother works at one and she says they’re shit. But Mumsy’s condition has worsened recently. Her walk is stiffer, slower, and even though she still has that sweet, grandmotherly side to her, she has these angry streaks now too. Sometimes she curses at your mother in Italian: Puttana! Or, your favorite: Vaffanculo. Fuck off. Your mother brushes these remarks away and says it’s just what some people do when they get old. They get mean. They feel powerless, she says, at losing their independence. Sometimes anger seems like the best tool they’ve got left.

 

It’s your job to look after Mumsy this summer while your mother works. Mostly you watch daytime talk shows with her. (Don’t change the channel on Days of Our Lives or she’ll call you a fucking baby and refuse to eat her lunch.) Once you helped dye her hair jet black, and you paint your nails a new color each week. Many Cheez-Its and popsicles have been consumed. Sometimes you also download blues music on the family computer and save it to a secret folder titled “COOL PEOPLE ONLY.” Mostly B.B. King since you read he’s the King of the Blues. His music sounds muffled and old, but you can hear the emotion in the songs—the pull of guitar strings, the gruff in his voice, the ache—and you have this idea that one day you’ll share B.B. King with your father.

 

Baby, how blue can you get? you’ll ask, and he’ll know exactly what to say.

 

Occasionally, too, you look through your mother’s things. Old photo albums of her childhood and her time with your father. There’s one of them on a mountaintop, her hair long and windblown, her arms around his neck like she’ll never let go. But he stares at the camera like he’s already someplace else.

 

Other times, you practice going up and down the stairs in your mother’s high heels. The red pointy ones. And one day as you rummaged through her clothes, you spotted something balled up in the back of her underwear drawer: the thong, forgotten and unwanted. It’s flimsy, like something found in a sales bin. Crayon purple and sparkly. You’ve seen high school girls wear these things at the mall. Jeans low so the top of the thong shows in the back. The whale tail. Your mother would say thongs are for girls with low self-esteem. But here was one in her underwear drawer, waiting for you like the dollar bills the tooth fairy used to leave under your pillow.

 

This thing is the holy grail of sex.

 

Your mother won’t even know it’s missing.

 

***

 

Friday night horror, Saturday night romance. Though you’ve seen it a thousand times, you cover your eyes and snuggle close to your mother on the sofa when Chucky whacks the babysitter in the face with a hammer.

 

“She’s a goner,” your mother says. She throws a piece of popcorn at the TV screen as the babysitter crashes through a window and falls to her death.

 

Mumsy snores soft and steady in a recliner next to the couch, though occasionally she makes a hacking sound like a cat barfing up a hairball. Giggle when she hacks over a quiet part in the movie. And when she wakes up and says, “What a precious doll,” exchange a knowing look with your mother.

 

Halfway through the movie, Mumsy goes upstairs to bed. Make another bag of popcorn, and beg your mother for a third root beer. When she says no, it’ll keep you up all night, tell her you’ll only drink half.

 

“Fine,” she says, “but I get the other half.”

 

Pretend you don’t know it’s a joint she lights after Mumsy’s gone. (She wants you to think it’s just a cigarette.) After you sit down with the fresh bag of popcorn, watch as she leans her head back and lets the smoke creep out of her mouth, and notice how beautiful she is. Even without makeup and her hair pulled back in a sloppy ponytail, even in a ratty old Tweedy Bird nightgown, there is a purity about her like an uninhabited island in the middle of the sea.

 

Long to please her.

 

But wonder about the thong—about where it came from and why she had it. The only men you recall her ever dating were named Ted and Gary. Or Fred and Larry. Neither lasted more than a month, and she never brought them into the house. Though she takes care of you and pays attention, you’re aware of a secret history kept hidden beneath all her beauty. It’s a history of pain and love. A history of loss. Tomorrow night tears will run down her face as the two of you watch Dirty Dancing.

 

But tonight, when the mom pulls the little boy away from the burnt Chucky doll and the credits come on, lean into her lap and say something to make her laugh. Know it’ll be easy since she’s had the joint. As she smiles down at you, in your best grandma voice say, “Oh, my, what a precious doll.”

 

Her laugh is a sound you’d hate to forget. She leans her head back and puts her whole body into it. Know she loves you more than anything in the world.

 

***

 

Next time Frankie comes over, let him touch you.

 

Wear just the thong and a sleeveless shirt. Wait for him at the kitchen table, where you have a view of the backyard—treeless, flowerless, a square expanse of dull green—through the bay window. It’s both incredible and painful to watch Frankie work. He’s determined to push the mower in perfect straight lines across the lawn. If a row turns out crooked, he goes back, does it again, until it’s just right. Only then does he move on to the next row.

 

When he enters the kitchen, at first he just stands there near the backdoor and gapes at you. Mosquito bites line his arms and legs, and he brings with him the scent of grass and sweat. Smile at him. And once he comes inside and takes the fifty dollar bill your mother left him, stand up and say, “You can touch it.”

 

At first he just runs a finger along the waistband. Then pulls away as if he’s been burnt.

 

Say, “Touch more.”

 

“More?” He raises his eyebrows. “Janie, you sure?”

 

Nod and say, “More.”

 

This isn’t something you could do with the guys at school. The only date you’ve ever been on was earlier this year with a kid who wore a black Led Zeppelin t-shirt with golden wings on the back. His name was Trevor James, the cutest guy in the eighth grade, and you asked him to the movies one Friday night. Suspect he said yes just because he was too polite to say no. Suspect your breasts weren’t big enough (you were in between training bra and A cup sizes, how embarrassing). When the next weekend came around and he didn’t ask you out, you cried and put a black X over every photograph of him in the yearbook.

 

Close your eyes as Frankie begins to touch the waistband again. Slowly, he traces around to the little triangle in the back, and now he’s standing close, his hand behind you touching just your skin. First soft and hesitant, then his whole hand grips an ass cheek. His hand is warm and clammy, and he breathes hormonally against the top of your head.

 

“I never had a girlfriend,” he says. “I just have my mom.”

 

Say, “This doesn’t make me your girlfriend.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“It just doesn’t, Frankie.”

 

His hand twitches against you. “Okay.”

 

Know this isn’t love, it’s not really even a crush, but in you is a strong desire for attention. For some kind of power. You stand there like that, him holding you, until you shiver. Then pull away.

 

Again, the guilt on his face. The bulge in his shorts.

 

“It’s okay. You liked it?”

 

He nods.

 

Say, “I’ll let you do it again next time, long as you don’t tell anyone.”

 

“I won’t,” he says. “Thanks, Janie.”

 

***

 

Here’s what you really want to know: Are you pretty?

 

While you watch The Price is Right with Mumsy one morning, ask her, “Hey, am I pretty?”

 

“You can’t put a price on pretty, dear,” she says.

 

Later, at dinner, twirl the spaghetti around your fork instead of slurp it, and ask your mother: “Mom, am I pretty?”

 

From across the table she looks at you, on her face so much pride and concern you want to die. “Of course you are, kiddo,” she says. “You’re gorgeous.”

 

Feel like a baby. Think of your crooked nose and pimples and that pouch of fat for a stomach. Say, “But not like you.”

 

Don’t cry when she laughs and you can see smears of red spaghetti sauce on her teeth. Know it’s not an evil laugh. It’s meant to relieve you, to say you’re insane for thinking you’re not as pretty as she.

 

Say, “I’m serious.” Concentrate on twirling your spaghetti. Notice the little bits of parsley in the sauce. “I’ve never even been kissed, you know.”

 

Your mother goes to respond, but then Mumsy begins to cough. Loud and phlegmy. She drops her fork into her plate of spaghetti, and her face goes red. Your mother stands, ready for action, but she doesn’t move further. She only waits.  Finally, after one last cough followed by a deep gasp of breath, Mumsy stops. Your mother sits down, and the two of them go on eating as if you hadn’t spoken, as if nothing has happened here. There’s even a look of relief on your mother’s face, like she’s been let off the hook.

 

And so you say this: “I bet you don’t even remember what it’s like to be kissed.”

Silence, like that brief moment right after the metal upon metal of a car crash.

 

“Honey,” your mother says, but whatever other words she holds, whatever stories she keeps from you, stay inside of her. Her face is filled with sorrow now – sorrow not for herself, but for you.

 

Slam your fork onto the table. “Well, do you?”

 

They both look at you, surprised. But just as you feel a hint of satisfaction, Mumsy slams her fork too. Shoves her plate away. “I don’t like it either,” she says, her voice scratchy from coughing. “Too damn chunky.”

 

Your mother puts a hand over her mouth. Then she laughs. Uncontrollably. She laughs so hard she snorts, and tears roll down her cheeks. Mumsy laughs now too, laughs and coughs.

 

Embarrassed, get up so fast your chair falls to the ground behind you. Don’t pick it up. Don’t look at either of them. You’re about to cry now, like a pathetic child.

 

Hurry upstairs to your bedroom and slam the door. Hate everything.

 

***

 

Underneath your bed is an old Taylor guitar. At some point when you were little your father gave it to you, but you don’t remember this. You’ve just always known it was yours and that it once belonged to him. It has rusted strings and a few shiny scratches along its body. There is no case – just the guitar, dusty and flat underneath the bed. You sometimes wonder why your father wanted you to have it. Was it unwanted, replaced by something better? Or was it valuable, worthy of family heirloom status?

 

Lie in bed after your spaghetti outburst, and feel an eeriness when you think of the guitar below you, waiting to be played. It’s as if your father himself is under there.

When your mother knocks on your door that night – “Janie? You want to talk?” – pretend to be asleep.

 

A couple weeks later on a rainy day in July, Mumsy paints your nails sparkly blue, and you imagine this blue navigating the neck of the guitar. The sparkle and shine of it against the bronze strings. Hurry upstairs and pull the guitar out from underneath the bed. It feels heavy and smooth in your hands. Bring it downstairs and sit Indian style on the floor with it in your lap. Mumsy faces you in her recliner, bottle of nail polish in her hands, and says, “Play me a tune, dear.”

 

The only chord you know is E minor, an easy one that requires just pressing two strings on the second fret. Hold these strings down hard. Even though it hurts your fingers, it’s a good kind of hurt. Like after a long day of raking leaves. Probably how Frankie feels after mowing the lawn. Strings pressed, strum with your right hand. At first it sounds muffled – it sounds awful – but press harder, keep strumming, and soon it sounds okay. Something dark and mangled. Mumsy bobs her head to your rhythm and so you play louder and hum a low tune. Close your eyes and feel the vibration of the guitar against your chest. Think of your father on stage. His hands bigger and faster than yours, working the strings like the guitar is an extension of his body.

 

Your mother doesn’t own any of his records. She listens to classical music and things like Celine Dion. But you’ve Googled him and discovered a whole long list of albums. You once listened to a song called “Baby Be Gone.” The guitar in this song was electric and sad, and the sound of it pulled everything out of you until you felt empty and abandoned and wondered why in the world anyone would ever want to play the blues.

 

Stop strumming and open your eyes. Mumsy drops the nail polish onto the floor and claps for you. She smiles and says, “Bravo, dear,” but notice a tiredness in her face too. Her eyes droop and seem to have this wet glaze over them. Her hair, though dyed black, is graying at the roots. Her face sags like melting Play-Dough, and you think how when she’s gone, it’ll just be your mother and you.

 

***

 

The blue polish is still bright on your nails three days later when Frankie mows the lawn. While he’s busy, sneak into your mother’s bedroom and put on some of her makeup. Go heavy on the eye shadow. Wear the thong and your old summer dress from a year ago, the pink and orange plaid one that’s too short for you now. Don’t wear a bra under it. Let the girls hang. Look down at your feet, your hairy big toe. Those feet, they must be covered. Find a pair of black high heels in your mother’s bedroom. No matter they’re a size too big.

 

Wait for him at the kitchen table. Be a woman and cross your legs.

 

The TV’s on low in the living room, and Mumsy rests on the couch. Her snoring sounds more guttural now, like her lungs are filled with sad songs. It’s a hot day in August, the sun relentless on Frankie’s shoulders as he mows back and forth in his perfect rows. Know he’ll come inside with his white t-shirt soaked, the armpits stained a light brown. As you watch him through a window near the table, notice how he mumbles something to himself while he mows, something that looks like counting. Get up and grab the fifty dollar bill from the counter when you hear the hum of the mower stop. Roll it up in your hand so he can’t see it.

 

When he comes inside, say, “Hey, Frankie.” Lean against the counter all casual-like.

 

He wipes sweat from his face with a shirtsleeve and breaths hard. “Hey,” he says. For a moment he just stands there in the middle of the kitchen, like he’s forgotten whose house he’s entered. Then, “Janie, can I have some water?”

 

Make a sexy face. “Call me Jane.”

 

He squints. “Jane?”

 

Say, “That’s right, honey” – the word “honey” strange and full in your mouth – and get him a glass at the sink. Keep the money folded in your hand.

 

He gulps the water down, then holds the empty glass out to you. “More?”

 

Get him more, and then more again.

 

He stops after he’s downed half the third glass. This is when he eyes the counter, the spot where his money usually sits. Keep the money tight in your fist. He sets the glass down and glances all around the room. He even looks up at the ceiling as if maybe your mother glued his money up there. Then, finally, he looks at you.

 

“Janie, hey, where’d my money go?”

 

Show him the fifty in your hand. Hold it up, still rolled, near your chest.

 

“Oh,” he says. His forehead crinkles, and he looks concerned, like how Mumsy looks when she loses her glasses.

 

Grin to let him know this is a game. He doesn’t grin back, but something in him at least seems to relax a little. When he goes to take the money, snatch your hand back. He tries to smile now, but he looks worried too. Know that what you’re doing is wrong, and you deserve what’s coming.

 

Hold the money behind your back and ask, “Do you think I’m pretty, Frankie?”

 

“Uh.” He scratches his head. “My mom’ll wonder where I am.”

 

“Tell me – am I pretty?”

 

Feel yourself begin to grow angry. You’re driven by a sense of desperation you’ll look back on years from now and cringe. Even as it’s happening, you’re ashamed at what you’re doing, and yet you can’t stop yourself. Desperation has no filter.

 

“Frankie. Jesus. Am I pretty or not?”

 

He nods. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah.”

 

Say, “Good.”

 

Then place the rolled bill between your breasts so it sticks out from the dress. Move closer to him. Now wait, make sure he’ll let you, then put your hand on the back of his neck. Feel the clamminess of his skin, his erection against your stomach, and pull his face toward yours. Kiss him hard on the mouth. Use your tongue. The taste of his mouth is like when you chew a piece of gum for too long. Pull back afterwards, but keep one hand on the back of his neck.

For a moment, he almost looks like he liked it.

 

Then he screams.

 

“Stop it!” he yells. The old gum smell blasting in your face. “Stop it!” He pushes you away and your hip bumps a counter edge. In the living room, Mumsy begins to clear her throat, woken by Frankie’s cries. He turns to go, but then he reaches toward your chest, on his face both fear and determination, and quickly snatches his money from your breasts. Then he is gone out the backdoor. He doesn’t even bother to shut it. That door is wide open, and you stand and stare at it for a long time until your mother’s high heels begin to hurt your feet and you can feel the summer heat coming in from outside.

 

***

 

Vow to never wear the stupid thong again. Instead, stuff it into the sound hole of your father’s guitar underneath your bed. The heart of the guitar. As if your father has engulfed your mother. As if you can bury your parents inside some forgotten chasm.

 

And six months later, on a cold and windy day in February, sit with your mother in room 415 at the Medical University hospital where Mumsy is a patient. Your mother flips through a Prevention magazine, and Mumsy sleeps, her snores all the deeper for the morphine running through her veins, which are bright against chalky skin. You’re supposed to be reading about cellular mitosis for biology class, but all you can think is how something so small can go so wrong.

 

Frankie refused to mow the lawn at your house anymore after what happened. He never told on you, though. The first week he didn’t show, your mother thought he probably had a cold. She left money on the counter for him, assuming he’d be by the following week. When he didn’t show again, she called his mother and then shrugged when she got off the phone. “Said he doesn’t like our yard,” she told you, and you shrugged back at her, too embarrassed to tell her what happened.

 

But now there’s a knock on the door, and here’s Frankie with his mother, Ms. Conway. She looks old in the eyes, but there’s a patience there, too, in how she guides Frankie into the room. It’s strange to see him in normal clothes and not sweaty. Ms. Conway explains they just wanted to come pay their respects. The way she says it sounds like Mumsy’s already dead.

 

To your surprise, Frankie sits next to you on the window seat. He seems relaxed, like he’s been here before, something in him far wiser than you’ll ever be. There are permanent wrinkles on his forehead, and specks of gray hair just above his ears. He doesn’t say anything, just picks at his fingers. Notice dried blood along the edges of his nails. Your mother and Ms. Conway whisper across the room near the door. Hear the words “tumor” and “lung.” The word “spread” too, which makes you think of butter. The room is filled with dim light and a constant hum, and there is Mumsy’s snoring too, and the slow beat of her heart monitor. Watch her chest rise and fall, rise and fall, and consider leaving the room for the cafeteria or bathroom. Because how can you face Frankie? How can you apologize for something you don’t fully understand? Think of your father, of what he may be doing right this moment, and of how everything that happens in a person’s life—every last little goddamn thing—makes a difference.

 

“Hey, Janie?” Frankie asks. Feel something freeze inside of you, scared of what might come next. He just continues to pick his fingers, though, and only says, “I’m sorry about your mumsy.”

 

Notice the lack of sincerity on his face, the blankness, but know he means well. His words, “your mumsy,” fill you up with every shade of blue imaginable.

 

Your tears come on sudden and full, just as surprising and foreign to you as a cancer diagnosis. First just little whimpers, then great sobs from a hardened, gray place deep down that has existed in you since before you were born. Since the day your father looked at your pregnant mother and said no.

 

Cry so hard your mother and Ms. Conway come rushing over. Their hands are on you now, Frankie’s too, and even Musmy begins to stir. “Is the baby crying?” she asks, and you cry harder. Because there are some hurts that cannot be comforted. Not even by your mother. No amount of hands or hugs or love in the world can penetrate the brokenness you feel. It’s a brokenness—a heartache—that at some point you just have to embrace. You have to learn how to play the blues. Only then, when you feel all there is to feel, can you stop crying. Only then can you finally take what you’ve been given.